“Two Spirit”: Tradition, History and Future

Drum Contest October 2010 Pow-wow by Red Haircrow
Drum Contest October 2010 Pow-wow by Red Haircrow

Update: The term “Two Spirit” since its agreed creation in the 1990s, like other Native concepts and beliefs, has been appropriated and misunderstood by non-Natives. It is a term for certain Native American people, and misappropriating or using it for others disrespects Native traditions whether the person intends to or not. It is not a pansexual term for anything GLBTQ. It is a culturally distinct term.

Two-Spirit is a specific role with responsibilities, including spiritual, in Native/Indigenous communities of North America. Even Natives who are LGBTIIQ are not automatically Two-Spirit either. Please read more about this in new material I added to this site, in the post, “Two-Spirit – Fiction, Facts & Misuse”, after serving as rapporteur for the Suicide Prevention in Indigenous Communities series of webinars, April-June 2022.

Suicide Prevention in Indigenous Communities: Proceedings of a Workshop, is the new book including all highlights from that excellent presentation by several Native experts, psychologists & leaders, and allies supporting health and healing. It is available here.

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“The two-spirited person is a native tradition that researchers have identified in some of the earliest discoveries of Native artifacts. Much evidence indicates that Native people, prior to colonization, believed in the existence of cross-gender roles, the male-female, the female-male, what we now call the two-spirited person.”–“The Way of the Two Spirited People” by Sandra Laframboise and Michael Anhorn.


Does “two spirited” simply mean gay?

“After having the opportunity to speak with two elders a few weeks ago, one being a Lakota living in Hot Springs, South Dakota from the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations and the other who is Chiricahua Apache (one of my own tribes), Blackfeet and  Cherokee, regarding the two spirit tradition…. We had a very interesting discussion.

In our community, which includes the school system, using the grants we receive from the USA federal government for Native American education for specialized assistance for Indians, we meet weekly together to share information, discussions, tutor the children, work at crafts and activities similar to tribal life long ago. These meetings are open to all, natives and non-natives alike, and everyone is welcomed with open arms as they long as they bring peace and respect with them. I am currently the president of this group, but am seriously hoping someone else will be elected in the future as I’ve currently had about enough contact with the federal government as I can take.

The background of my discussion:

Several weeks ago, I was approached by an author who writes m/m fiction who planned a “Native American” story. Naturally it would center on two or more male characters in a relationship of some sort which would eventually include a sexual one. The author had general questions about Native Americans and the “blood brother” bond which they had heard could include a sexual relationship. They also queried regarding the “berdache” tradition (berdache is actually a non-native word) as they considered what area, what people and what time period to set their story in.

They inquired about research materials, and referenced a few works from non-native writers, and when I saw who they were I had to give my honest opinion. These were European descended writers who had no true inside insight or knowledge of natives beyond what they had observed and superimposed their own religious and culture interpretations upon. One writer regularly used the word “squaw” which is a highly offensive term to many Native Americans used by European invaders/explorers to describe Indian women, which means “c***” or “vagina”. Originally descended from the Algonquin word for “woman, the term was corrupted.

Eventually, the author gave me an overview of their story asking for insights. I pointed out the scenes and/or actions of a character that wouldn’t take place in a native tribe, and the fact some natives would not look kindly on someone trying to write on a topic about which they obviously knew so little. Offensive to us mostly means something we would not advocate or support, but after long years of misinterpretation and misinformation about us, it is something we are unfortunately used to.

As a native who is widely travelled, having been born in Europe and living in several different countries, I am used to interacting with a wider range of persons about Native American life and traditions, more than average. I realize often it is not the intention of anyone to be offensive, but sometimes they simply do not know our various cultures or traditions. Most have only seen films or read books which are not accurate portrayals, and which are almost exclusively by Anglos.

I was not personally offended by the author’s words or questions. I was merely stating what I knew from experience, yet they became defensive, and I soon saw it was time for me to end the contact and I chose to do so on a positive note: “If you need any help, let me know and I will help as I can.” I received the reply, “Oh I have many people offering to help me. If no one can supply me with the information I need then I’ll get back to you.” I didn’t chose to be offended or bothered by the comment either, but I considered it to be in very poor taste and the typical arrogant condescending attitude Anglos display when they don’t get their way.

After some weeks, the author wrote back to me. They’d not been able to find what they needed. As I had formerly explained to them, for some topics, Native American oral tradition is the proper and only source. There are few extensive and factual documents which have been made about “two spirited” people, called “The Dinéh (Navaho) refer to them as nàdleehé or ‘one who is ‘transformed’, the Lakota (Sioux) as winkte, the Mohave as alyha, the Zuni as lhamana, the Omaha as mexoga, the Aleut and Kodiak as achnucek, the Zapotec as ira’ muxe, the Cheyenne as he man eh, etc. (Roscoe, 1988). Some tribes had different names for two-spirited men and women.” (Referencing the earlier website information provided). I had explained what I knew was mostly through that oral tradition but it was sound.

In any case, they explained, they’d contacted one of our mutual publishers who had said they would put them in contact with a “real” Indian. Real Indian? I asked. Hm, so what am I then? I thought to myself. A fake one?  The dialogue deevolved into diatribe, the sort of which I am especially tired.

“I thought you wanted to read my story outline…” as if they were doing me a favor. I never once asked or suggested any such thing. One, I don’t agree with someone who has so little knowledge of a people, culture and history to write about indigenous people, yet I fully support an author’s right or wish to create a story they find acceptable. I might not agree with it, but it’s their right. When I wished them good luck in their endeavours, they completely misinterpreted my honest and sincere wishes, to mean I was “taking the piss”, to use a British colloquialism.

Wow, do I ever hate interacting with people who are quick to be offended and flounce off at the slightest, making huge assumption and never once asking the necessary question, “What do you mean?” if they didn’t understand something. Though in that case, it seemed to simply be assigning negative ulterior motives in my wishes. As my trademark quote says, “I welcome questions. I hate assumptions.”

But back to the Two Spirit tradition:

I presented this incident to the two elders, and a couple of other natives near my age, along with my son was listening in.  The female elder deferred to the male but she smiled to herself looking down, perhaps knowing what he was going to say. I’d watched his face and reactions as I recounted what happened.

He is an older man of indeterminate age who answers, “Old enough”, if you ask him what that number is. He looks a bit to the side with a smile as mischievous as a child’s. A multiple decorated veteran of two wars and featured in a number of history books both Native American and military, he’s well known and respected across the world, for like myself, he’s travelled from one end of this earth to the other.

His arms had continued to rest folded across his chest, which is his usual stance, sitting or standing, but I’d heard his indrawn breath, it’s slow release. I saw a brief hand come up to his brown brow before returning to its place. The jaw had tightened at one point. The eyes rose hard and focused to a point above my head but soon slid back down to the side. He laughed a little, as I finished.

“You did better than I would’ve.” He laughed again.

The Elder speaks:

(Note: Among the Lakota, such ones are called winkte. To pronounce it correctly, it’s not exactly two syllables as it appears, but has an almost subvocal, gutteral “drop” after the “K”, making it sound more like: “wink-(kuh)-tay”.)

“We people have mysteries. Things we cannot explain. Things we don’t know how they came to be or how they stay alive but it’s all part of life. For some things we have legends and tales passed down from our ancestors, and they’re enough though now we have science and all kinds of stuff which explain how things work inside. Or they try to anyway. There are still mysteries and will always be. There are some things you don’t need answers to in order to have a happy life or just get by even.

There have always been winkte. Even now we have winkte who live on the reservation and they’re accepted just like anybody else. There’s no need to comment on them, make up tales about them or treat them badly because that’s just the way they are. That’s how they were born. If a man wants to live as a woman and take a male partner, then it’s his choice, and he is the woman he wants to be, doing woman’s things that feel good to him.

That’s the way it’s always been with the People but when the black robes came (the European settlers with their Christian religion. The Catholics are directly referred to first as “black robes” but that term came to include all Christians) they saw something they didn’t understand. Well, they thought they understood it and put their own words to it, words like “evil”, “wrong” and “sin”. But there is no evil among the People. Things happen. People are certain ways. That’s just life. We don’t try to force our own thoughts or beliefs on anybody else, but that’s what the black robes did to us.

Then you had some of the People converting to the black robe religion and they too tried to say certain things were “evil” and “sin”, but it’s not our way to judge others. It’s the white man’s God’s way. Every body should just be how they are and be allowed to. I can be happy with very little because their definition does not apply to me. They might be unhappy with what I had. I think that’s why they are so unhappy and so far from the earth. They’re always looking at someone else and trying to change them when they don’t really know themselves in the first place.”

In modern society and literary circles:

I really believe that’s the crux of the matter both with the author I mentioned and the struggles we see going on around the world regarding gender and equality, gay rights and conservative Christian “values”: you have so many people trying to overlay or superimpose their beliefs, their cultures, their religion on others. That some don’t even recognize that’s what they’re doing is especially frustrating and sad. I had a Native American who actually send me a link which advocated the belief, “One marriage, one man and one wife, one God.” I had to smile. They hadn’t even read my profile obviously, but I felt a bit of disgust that they had fallen into the “white man’s ways”. A post-colonial yet colonized mindset. I didn’t mind in the slightest he had that belief, as it is his right, but that he believed in imposing it on everyone else? That is where I draw the line.

Often I get negative flack because I don’t respond as someone expects me to, either through the internet or in person. I can only say what is honest, sincere and truthful and I only speak from the heart. I do not hold grudges. I don’t let myself and actively work against it. I believe a variety of things but I do not believe it is acceptable to make laws, judgements or assumptions against others just because they are different from myself. It’s likely why I can accept Buddhism or Hinduism, and believe in the traditional ways of the People, but more often reject Christianity because far too many followers of their Christ and/or “god”, preach and enforce their beliefs on others. The base premise being that if you are not Christian, you are immoral or unethical….. which belief is immoral and unethical in itself. I cannot believe in anything that condemns others just because they are different.

Regarding “blood brothers”, that’s the first time I actually saw the elder look angry. He only said, “You know the Lakota are a good natured people. We like to laugh and joke around, and we try not to take things too seriously, but when we get angry about something it goes far beyond what the white man can comprehend. That made me angry.” And that was that. Being blood brothers ( an arguably white created concept) does not refer to sexual activity, but whatever the participants in that bond choose to do is their own affair and sacred.

There seems to be a growing portion of people today who transform any and everything into sexual innuendo or give it a sexual connotation. I’ve observed this is more often done in sexually repressed or overly religious governed societies and countries. Whether they do it secretly or openly, for example Saudi Arabia or the USA, it is still a type of over-sexualization. Regarding women, many fundamental or conservative Muslims see any skin as provocative if shown outside the immediate family circle or in public. And we’ve all read about the depth of hypocrisy regarding homosexuality in so many of their societies and cities.


To understand the two spirit tradition, you have to try to understand the People themselves and not place other cultures terms or definitions upon it. Take it as it is, also recognizing these are distinct different people, with different languages, origins, traditions, etc. They are not homogeneous. In some nations, if someone born with a male outward appearance feels they are female, then they are then female. It’s as simple as that. No other psychological terms or interpretations.

Same thing with a person born with a female appearance, if they choose to be a man, then they are a man. This is one of the reasons you will find no records of such in certain nations. In the spirit of modernization, what a person chooses to term themselves is their choice, for “two spirit” can refer to a range of realities: intersex, transsexual, transgender, hermaphrodite, gay, lesbian, but if you are using the term or applying to it someone, make sure you ask or define clearly and respect that answer you are given or the silence you receive. Life is simply life. Sexuality is a part of it, but not central to being.

In this modern age, of course and especially with globalization, in order to try to understand others, people naturally apply or assign their own definitions, but be careful and considerate. Respect other people’s cultures and don’t just ask the questions and challenge or say its wrong because its wrong to you. Accept the answers. Accept there are differences, but there need be no dividers. Above all, don’t appropriate other people’s cultures, their identities, their beliefs, for especially in the case of Native Americans, millions died while trying to keep those things. They were killed or sent to their deaths by people who disregarded their feelings, their requests, their need to live in their own way and by their own definitions. Don’t be the same in this modern age.


13 thoughts on ““Two Spirit”: Tradition, History and Future

  1. Thank you for linking this article. Lots of good food for thought here. I’ve asked about Wink’te people in particular. (I was talking to an older man I know who maintains ties to his Mother’s community in Santee Nebraska) He told me just because you’re Indian and if you’ll pardon the turn oif phrase “suck dick” doesn’t make you a Wink’te. He said that such people had Dreams and explained some of that aspect to me, which I won’t get into here. As for me, I’ve never had the opportunity to ask my own Ojibwe relatives about this in depth, save for a Female Elder from the Turtle Mountain/Red Lake Communities who told me such people are considered as “being born in the Change Winds”. She is also somewhat familiar with the LaKota/Dakota Ways, and reminded me that such people sometimes were Namers and had other roles in the community as well. I have come to see the term “Two-Spirit” as being a more accurate descriptor of my ‘difference’ from other young men my age. And I had the opportunity to attend the International Two-Spirit Gathering in 2008 when it was held in my home state of Minnesota. I participated in my first Sweat there, and there was a Blackfoot Elder there who did a Ceremony for the community which I will always be grateful for. As for the “blood bothers” thing, is that the same as Hunkapi or the Relative-making Ceremony?

    1. For that, I wouldn’t say certainly as I’m not Lakota and though I’ve spent much time with and have very close Lakota friends, I hadn’t discussed that specifically with their family elder. From what I know of it, Hunkapi may be similar or what came to translated as “blood brothers.” Relative making, using the exact phrasing, I know the Lakota/Dakota/Natoka process of consideration takes everyone’s agreement, all tribespeople, not just one or two or even one family, so it is not lightly done. So when some claim to be “adopted” as my friend from Rosebud replied with smile, she is the Indian Ed teacher in my son’s school, “Well, I don’t know about that,” which really means, “no.” If you know some Lakotas, you’ll know what I mean by that. They crack me up with their sense of humor sometimes.

      What the older man said is the same with non-native too, although as I’m sure you know a lot of people love to label people, to try to definition others based on their own beliefs without regard to the individual’s feelings or expressions. I get that a lot. It’s extremely tiresome, whether its from well-meaning people who don’t understand, or those who motivations are ambiguous, and too often come over as negative.

      Using the perhaps “neo-native” term two spirit, so many tribes and peoples I’ve interacted with often have a description or name for such ones in their own language. But as one group I spoke with in Canada, often “two spirits” were so naturally a part of the community, they weren’t clearly defined by gender or sexual partner(s) but rather by their roles, exactly as you pointed out. So really, from my viewpoint, whether like the writer of the article at Indian Country, or others, they are trying to define, label and decide who someone is based solely on their own opinion, and not even the traditions of the People. I consider that very unfortunate, especially from a native. I suppose it was inevitable, yet it doesn’t take away what the elders have taught me, and what I and others such as yourself may feel.

      I appreciate your taking the time to comment,

      Best wishes,

      Red Haircrow

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